US Foreign Policy

The Arab World’s First Soft Revolution?

in Program

By Ellen Laipson – A spontaneous, massive uprising of discontent in the normally serene Mediterranean country of Tunisia could signal a turning point in the Arab world – the slow motion reform process in modernizing but undemocratic states may have reached its limits, at least in Tunisia.  The United States should make a virtue of necessity and support a new and more open government there. 

What is striking about the abrupt change in fortunes in Tunisia, with President Ben Ali fleeing the country after only a few weeks of unrest, is that Tunisia is NOT the poster child for all the ills of the Arab world.  This is not an overcrowded place with a failed education system, or a society that suffers from deep sectarian or ethnic fissures.  This is a homogenous, small state that was a vanguard of modernization from the 1960s: progressive family planning policies, big investments in education, gender equality and infrastructure, and economic policies that encouraged the growth of the private sector and foreign investment.

Its great failing was on the political side. First President Habib Bourguiba, an early reformer, succumbed to the cult of personality, and in his dotage, was replaced by a military security official, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who was Prime Minister when he moved against Bourguiba.  Ben Ali’s nearly quarter century presidency was characterized by growing political repression, despite considerable economic success and little credible evidence of any enduring threats from within.  Ben Ali, a partner of the United States on the war on terrorism, was prone to seeing Islamic radicalism as the reason for any kind of discontent or opposition.  US policy may have indulged him by putting counterterrorism above all other issues, and by appearing unable to act forcefully on issues of press freedoms, human rights and political space.

Youth unemployment was the initial trigger for the revolt, and that issue resonates powerfully across the Arab world.  In Tunisia’s case, the youth are educated and have great potential to be productive citizens.  This is not Pakistan or Morocco, with large numbers of young people who never attended school and have no marketable skills.

The demand for the President’s ouster also came from middle class and middle aged people who had spent decades keeping their heads down and not demanding democratic freedoms, grateful for a strong regime that could protect the modern, secular state and avoid radicalization.  But even those loyal and obedient citizens were fed up.  It appears that the corruption of Ben Ali’s family, recently revealed by Wikileaks cables of US diplomatic reporting, was another spark.  The Wikileaks connection will be debated and disputed, but it seems plausible that familiar rumors of palace corruption would take on greater meaning when validated by the authority of US officials.

The link between youth unemployment and corruption is that Tunisia had maxed out on its economic attractiveness to outside investment, so that job creation outside the tourism industry was a problem, and the global recession had hurt even that sector.  I recall a World Bank official telling the Tunisians a decade ago that they would hit a wall in their economic growth if all major investment decisions had to go through the palace (for its cut of the bounty); serious investors would stay away. 

The speed of change and the relatively small casualty toll should allow the situation to calm down soon, and Tunisia’s able technocrats can keep the country running while hard political choices will be made by the discredited ruling party and other elements of the political elite.  Unlike Iran, where competing power centers can immobilize processes of change, or Lebanon, where each new political configuration after unrest is as weak as its predecessor, Tunisia can find a new equilibrium point.  The society is moderate in spirit and should be able to make a transition to a more inclusive and open political culture.  Violence and radicalism do not have deep roots there.  While some Tunisians may harbor resentment that the United States, France and other close partners did not push Ben Ali very hard on political issues, there is not deep-seated anti-Americanism or anti-western sentiment overall.

But surely challenges remain: will the security services step back and adapt to a new political leadership?  Will a new leadership emerge quickly enough to establish legitimacy and to avoid a sustained period of uncertainty that could fuel violence?  Can a new government move smartly on job creation prospects, which then-Prime Minister Gannouchi addressed during a recent visit to the World Bank?

The Tunisian situation also seems to have awakened the democracy promotion spirit in the Obama Administration.  Secretary Clinton used strong words about the Arab world’s poor track record on freedom during the Forum for the Future meeting in Doha earlier this week, and the White House honored the aspirations of the Tunisian people in its first comment after Ben Ali fled the country.    The United States has a stake in supporting Tunisia’s transition, which need not adversely  affect counter-terrorism cooperation or other US interests.  Having been spared a long saga of debating whether to support the incumbent regime or the protestors, the US should move quickly to help institutions and societal groups in Tunisia move forward.  


Photo Credit: “Zine el Abidine Ben Ali” by Marco J (flun1tr4z3p4m) 2007.








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